California Missions Trail

California Missions Trail : San Carlos Boromeo de Carmelo

The California Missions Trail is probably the longest and best-developed North American pilgrimage route. It includes 21 Catholic missions, as well as some presidios, pueblos, and sub-missions.

Originally, there were two routes for the California Missions Trail — one that followed by the Portolá Expedition party, including Franciscan missionary leader Junípero Serra, who founded the first mission, San Diego de Alcala, in 1769. This was along modern Hwy 1.  

The second route was the one used by the Juan Bautista de Anza Expedition a little further inland. The 21 Catholic missions were built from 1769 to 1823 along or close to El Camino Real (The Royal Road), close to this second route along scenic Hwy 101. 

The Spanish king had sent troops and Franciscan missionaries up from his territories in Mexico to colonize coastal California and convert the natives to Catholicism. 

The road itself became associated with the Franciscan fathers because they maintained the road and offered lodging for travelers. It later became a stagecoach route, and bells were hung along the way starting in 1906 so people would know which road they traveled. 

Today, several of the missions remain active parishes and continue to hold services. Details of each mission follow below.

Things to Know About the California Missions Trail

Although the California Missions Trail is a scenic 600 miles — by comparison, the most popular route for the Camino Santiago in Spain is about 500 miles — it’s often enjoyed as a road trip of some sort.  

If you prefer a guided version, it’s very easy to find formal guided tours of the California Missions Trail that take 8 or 9 days to wander through the various missions by bus, staying in hotels along the way. 

Can it be walked? Absolutely. There’s an 800-mile El Camino Real Trail divided into 20 sections. You can do the pilgrimage all in one go, but it’s also really easy to divide the journey into segments and do more manageable pilgrimages to the various missions. 

The California Missions Trail is a medley — a mix of urban hiking, small historic towns, and stunning scenery. Mission Walkers can choose to overnight in lodging found in the cities or towns. However, camping sites are available along many stretches of the trail, so it’s possible to do much of it that way if you pack along a tent or hammock.

Many of the missions along the California Missions Trail charge a nominal admissions fee. Others are free, self-guided tours, but donations are welcome. 

The site offers contact for a pilgrim’s passport. The California Mission Walk guide by Ron Briery is also available there by email or on Amazon. It has a good, detailed description of the California Missions Trail and is one of a couple currently offered for free on Kindle Unlimited.  

Stephen J. Binz offers a more pilgrimage-focused book on the subject, for sale at most major outlets. His Saint Junipero Serra’s Camino offers a historical mission accounting and spiritual guide. It also offers insights into Native American spirituality and addresses the sometimes-damaging interactions with the Native American community the missions came to serve. 

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21 Missions

California Missions Trail : Inside Mission Santa Barbara

Twenty of the California missions along the California Missions Trail were founded under Spanish rule. The last, San Francisco de Solano in Sonoma, was established under Mexican rule. Listed in order from south to north, they are:

San Diego de alcalá

(16 July 1769, 1st mission of the California Missions Trail)
10818 San Diego Mission Road, San Diego, CA 92108 / (619)281-8449

This was the first California mission founded by St. Junípero Serra during the Portolá Expedition. It is named after St Didacus of Alcalá, typically known as St Diego. St Junípera and two other Franciscan fathers dug into the beachhead at the mouth of the San Diego River, planted a cross there, and hung a bell from the branch of a nearby tree. A trio of bells is still blessed and rung before Sunday mass at a newer chapel at the mission. There is a centuries-old garden filled with citrus, olive trees, and avocado, as well a historic cemetery. This is also the site of California’s first Christian martyr, Father Jayme, who was killed during a clash with local Tipai-Ipai.

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San Luis rey de francia

(13 June 1798, 18th mission) 
4050 Mission Avenue, Oceanside, CA 92068 / (760)757-3651

Known as the King of the Missions, San Luis Rey de Francia is the only surviving mission on the California Missions Trail shaped like a cross and was once the largest building in Alta California. It was named for St Louis IX, King of France and head of the Secular Franciscan Order and founded by Fr. Fermin Franciso La Suén. It has a mortuary chapel with a dome and wooden cupola, and a corridor with 32 Roman arches. There is also a museum. The mission overlooks a valley and was the largest and most populated mission. At one time, the property stretched over a 15-mile radius. Very prosperous and in harmony with the environment and its people. Looking at the gardens through the remains of a carriage arch, you can see the first pepper tree in California, transplanted from Peru in 1830.

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San Juan capistrano

(30 October 1775, refounded 1 November 1776, 7th mission)
26801 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92693 / (949)234-1300

Every year on March 19th, migrating swallows return from Argentina to this “Jewel of the Missions,” which celebrates with a fiesta. It was also designed in the shape of a cross and included an impressively tall bell tower and seven domes, but much of the original architecture was damaged in the 1812 earthquake. It now hosts some very picturesque ruins, a unique bell wall, beautiful landscaping, and the Serra Chapel. It is the only chapel on the California Missions Trail still in use that St. Junípero Serra — the first saint to be canonized in the United States — is known to have said mass in. Mission San Juan Capistrano is named for St. John Capistran, a 15th century Franciscan, while a side chapel is dedicated to St John Peregrine, known as the patron saint of cancer sufferers.

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san gabriel arcángel

(8 September 1771, 4th mission)
428 South Mission Drive, San Gabriel, CA 91776 / (626)457-3035

The “Pride of the Missions,” this fortress-like mission is another founded by St Junípero Serra. Forced to move from its original location, it is currently located in the foothills 9 miles east of modern-day Los Angeles. It exhibits Moorish features in its design. Its designer, Fr. Antonio Cruzado, grew up in Cordova, Spain, and the mission copies much from the cathedral in Cordova. Mission San Gabriel Arcángel hosts the oldest cemetery in Los Angeles Country, including a memorial to 6,000 Native Americans who are buried there. It’s still an active church where weddings and religious services take place.

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San Fernando rey de españa

(8 September 1797, 17th mission)
15151 San Fernando Mission Boulevard, Mission Hills, CA 91345 / (818)361-0186

The San Fernando Rey de España is conveniently close to Mission San Gabriel, so visitors sometimes choose to visit both in a single day. Know however, that the San Fernando Rey is pretty big, so there’s lots of walking involved. It is named for King Ferdinand III of Spain. There is a statue of St Ferdinand over the altar in the relatively simple church, which is decorated with Native American designs. The convento used to serve as a traveler hospice and is fairly huge. It also contains priests’ quarters, winery, kitchen, chapel, reception hall, and storehouse, in addition to the guest rooms. The colonnade has 19 arches and is worth seeing. There are also a church, school, and workshops at the mission.

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san buenaventura

(31 March 1782, 9th mission)
225 East Main Street, Ventura, CA 93001 / (805)648-4496

San Buenaventura, named for the Italian St Bonaventure, was the last mission on the California Missions Trail founded by St Junípero Serra. It has a unique triangular design that leads out to the gardens. Another unique feature was its wooden bells, which were rung during Holy Week when the metal bells stayed silent. It was once an agriculturally rich mission with an aqueduct running in from the Ventura River. The mission also has a shrine to Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. One odd bit of trivia is that in 1818 the mission was endangered by French pirates. The mission was converted to a parish church in 1836 and still holds services. There is a May pilgrimage there from the gardens to the cross at Grant Park, where they hold an outdoor mass.

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santa bárbara

(4 December 1786, 10th mission)
2201 Laguna Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93105 / (805)682-4713

Mission Santa Bárbara is the “Queen of the Missions” and the only one on the California Missions Trail continuously operated by the Franciscans from the time of its founding. It’s built in a Neoclassical style with a Moorish foundation and boasts striking views of the ocean and the city. It is the first to be christened by Fr. Lasuen. Because it’s easily accessible from the ocean and from missions to the north and south, it became mission headquarters. Originally an adobe structure, it was rebuilt using stone after it was severely damaged in the 1812 earthquake. The mission has unusual twin towers with six bells, each inscribed with the cross and dedicated to a saint. There is also a presidio and a presidio church in the nearby town.

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Santa inés

(17 September 1804, 19th mission)
1760 Mission Drive, Solvang, CA 93464 / (805)688-4815

Fr. Estevan Tapis dedicated this quiet mission to the young Roman martyr St Agnes, who in 304 AD refused to sacrifice to pagan gods. It is located along the California Missions Trail in a region known for its wine and continues to have services and weddings in its chapel. It is known for its number of mission-era paintings. Outdoors, you can find the Stations of the Cross and a historic grape arbor covering a walkway that leads out to some beautiful gardens, just as visitors would have seen them 200 years earlier. 

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la purísima conceptión

(8 December 1787, 11th mission)
2295 Purisima Road, Lompoc, CA 93436 / (805)733-3713)

Featured on Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters, La Purísima is widely believed to be haunted. It is the only mission that acts as a living museum, with frequent encampments and reenactments taking place there, and locals dressing in period clothing and taking on the roles of self-sufficient mission life during annual “Mission Days.” Unusually, the mission has a linear layout. It rests amid 968 acres that are further surrounded by 2,000 acres of parkland, so there’s lots of wildlife.

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San Luis obispo de tolosa

(1 September 1772, 5th mission)
782 Monterey Street, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401 / (805)543-6850

San Luis Obispo was founded by St Junípero Serra and named for St Louis, Bishop of Toulouse. Originally built of logs, this mission was the first on the California Missions Trail to use tiles for its roofing — its original thatched roof was vulnerable to flaming arrows — and was built in a valley with lots of bears (thus the bear statue in the mission plaza). Also, since Vatican law required mission walls to be built as high as the local trees, San Luis Obispo’s walls were built 50 – 60 feet high. Its museum hosts a vibrant collection of Chumash artifacts. It is currently an active parish church with a school.

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San Miguel de arcángel

(25 July 1797, 16th mission)
801 Mission Street, San Miguel, CA 93451 / (805)467-3256

Founded by Fr Fermin Lasuén in the Salinas Valley, San Miguel de Arcángel was intended to close the gap between Mission San Luis Obispo and San Antonio de Padua. It is an adobe structure with a bright interior painted by locals and never since repainted. Some consider it to be the best preserved and most authentic of the missions. The 2,000 pound bell is rung from a wooden platform in front of the mission, rather than a tower. The mission holds a special fiesta the third Sunday of September  in honor of its patron saint, St Michael.

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San Antonio de padua

(14 July 1771, 3rd mission)
Mission Creek Road, Jolon, CA 93928 / (831)385-4478

San Antonio de Padua is fairly isolated on the California Missions Trail, just below the Santa Lucia Mountains and next to the Hunter Liggett Military Reservation. It was the first mission to use Spanish-style red clay roof tiles — preferable to earlier thatch roofs for being waterproof and fire resistant. It is known for its archway bells and campanario. The mission is dedicated to St Anthony and was the site of one of the first recorded marriages in California in 1773. Because it’s so peaceful, it’s currently used as a retreat center.

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nuestra señora de la soledad

(9 October 1791, 13th mission)
36641 Fort Romie Road, Soledad, CA 93960 / (831)678-2586

Named for Our Lady of Solitude, small Nuestra Señora de la Soledad is located next to the Salinas River among rolling hills and rich pastures. It was built to assist the other missions and known for its abundant crops, particularly wheat. In 1828, the original church was destroyed by floods and was replaced by a simpler one. However, its 14 religious symbols for the stations of the cross are rare originals. During secularization, the mission property was used for a grocery store, restaurant, and ranch house. Since returning to the Catholic church, it has been steadily restored and now houses a mission museum where the convento used to be.

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san carlos borromeo de carmelo

(3 June 1770, 2nd mission)
3080 Rio Road, Carmel, CA 93923 / (831)624-3600

This mission was founded by St Junípero Serra on Pentecost Sunday in 1770 and was his favorite mission on the California Missions Trail. Both he and Fr. Lasuen, another great mission founder, are buried here. Its architecture is Moorish in style and includes a pretty star-shaped window above the entrance. There are a number of beautiful artifacts in the mission, including the popular Serra Memorial Cenotaph sculpted by Jo Mora in 1924, depicting four missionaries. It contains California’s first library, founded in 1778. 

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San Juan bautista

(24 June 1797, 15th mission)
Second & Mariposa Streets, San Juan Bautista, CA 95045 / (831)623-4528

San Juan Bautista was founded on the feast day of St John the Baptist, its patron saint, and sits on the only remaining Spanish plaza in California. The adobe church there has been used continuously since 1812. The 30 historic buildings surrounding the mission provide the feel of an authentic town of the mission era. Among these are the Plaza Hotel, Zenneta House, and the Plaza Stable travelers used. Because the mission sits on the San Andreas fault, earthquakes ruined much of the outer walls, the archways separating the three aisles of the church, and some of the outer buildings. The missionaries taught musical arts here, and there are still remnants of parchments showing the special colored musical notation system they used.

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santa cruz

(28 August 1791, 12th mission)
126 High Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 / (831)426-5686

This little mission was named for the holy cross, rather than for a saint, and is located near the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. Despite its beautiful location, it suffered a series of misfortunes. First, the mission was inconveniently located across the river from a pueblo occupied by former prison convicts who used mission land and that of the natives as they pleased. Then French pirates came. Then there was the looting. Then there were the earthquakes. (If ever you feel bad about your own luck...) Many of the original paintings and statues, however, remain for viewing.

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Santa Clara de asís

(12 January 1777, 8th mission)
500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95953 / (408)554-4023

Santa Clara de Asís is located on the Guadeloupe River and was founded by St. Junípero Serra three months before he died. It is next to the University of Santa Clara, the oldest college in California. The mission is named after St. Clare of Assisi, founder of the Poor Clares. Because of a series of natural disasters, the mission has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times, each time on a different location. The bell tower includes a bell gifted by King Alfonso XIII of Spain in 1929. The main garden features tree roses, while a miles-long line of willows marks The Alameda, a well-known San Jose street. 

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san josé

(11 June 1797, 14th mission)
43300 Mission Boulevard, Fremont, CA 94539 / (510)657-1797

Founded by Fr. Lasuén, the mission is dedicated to St. Joseph. It was originally called La Mision del Gloriosisimo Patriarch San José … far less catchy. There is an authentic replica on site of the original wooden gothic-style church, which was moved to Burlingame after the 1868 earthquake. It is one of the largest missions on the California Missions Trail and still holds services and school tours. The surviving monastery wing is now the museum. 

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San Francisco de asis, mission dolores

(29 June 1776, 6th mission)
3321 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94114 / (415)621-8203

Popularly called Mission Dolores, San Francisco de Asís is located in the city of San Francisco. It contains sophisticated religious art and an amazing ceiling painting done by local Native Americans using a vegetable paint. It has colorful wall paintings and guilded reredos. The mission was originally a long log and mud structure later relocated next to Lake Dolores. It holds services at both the Old Mission and the basilica. The well-maintained cemetery is a quiet place amidst a busy city. It contains a mass grave of the “Mission Indians” buried there, who are thought to have died largely of weather effects and European diseases. The mission’s current curator and assistant curator are Ohlone descendants. 

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san rafael arcángel

(4 December 1817, 20th mission)
1104 Fifth Avenue, San Rafael, CA 94901 / (415)454-8141

Named after St Raphael, the angel of bodily healing, San Rafael Arcángel was founded as an asistencia, or helper, to Mission Dolores. Its sanitarium and hospital, headed by a padre with medical training, Fr. Taboado, was so successful that many missions sent it their sick patients. Five years later, it was given full mission status. The small mission church has a lovely star-shaped window (mudéjar). The Native Sons of the Golden West contributed a sign and bell on the original site, with the Hearst Foundation adding a replica of the original structure. 

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San Francisco solano

(4 July 1823, 21st mission)
20 East Spain Street, Sonoma, CA 95476 / (707)938-1519

This mission was founded by Fr. Jose Altimira after Mexico declared its independence from Spain. It is also the site where the first bear flag was raised in 1846, as California declared its independence from Mexico. Its patron saint was St. Francis Solano, who was a missionary to Peru. A portion of its original quadrangle and its world-famous vineyards still exit. Every year the blessing of the grapes is still performed in front of this mission by a Franciscan priest. The large mission quadrangle is used for special events. There is also a commemorative wall with the names of its Native American neophytes. There is a restored church for viewing, but this mission is not an active part of the Catholic church.

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Here's a look at all 21 missions along the California Missions Trail:

Inspiration for the journey ...

Whether you go on pilgrimage in Europe for transformation, or walk the paths for your own reasons, there is no shortage of pathways winding across borders.

Sometimes pilgrimage is a wounded wandering toward a Father’s love. It’s not what we usually think of when we consider God’s intention toward us. But my cup overflows…